How Traktor Changed the World of DJing

We trace the history of Native Instruments’ flagship DJ software, Traktor, to learn more about how it changed the face of DJing forever and the next big step in its evolution — integrating with Beatport LINK.

11 min
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Jun 28, 2021
John Thorp

On New Years Eve 1999, as the world’s superstar DJs raced around the world to celebrate the turn of the millennium, some jetted against the timeline to perform multiple midnight shifts. Paid more than handsomely for their contribution, it nonetheless now seems inconceivable to imagine that each lugged around a hefty weight of vinyl across oceans and continents, rather than armed only with a USB stick, and perhaps a backup. To those who have spent the last year indoors and immersed in live streams, it might even seem inconceivable that they left the house at all.

Looking back in celebration of the official release of Traktor x Beatport LINK integration, it would be impossible not to focus on Berlin’s vital role in a digital music revolution. The German capital (as well as techno capital) was a very different city in 2000. A decade after reunification, the first seeds of the start-up revolution that has since transformed the German’s capital economy were sown amongst a handful of plucky companies anticipating the digital revolution. One of these was Native Instruments. Founded in 1996, Native Instruments, or “NI” as it’s more widely known, was forward-thinking and reactive to the city’s ever-growing electronic music scene, one that already had long-standing ties to Detroit and Chicago, the midwestern American birthplaces of contemporary house and techno. 

Friedmann Becker was a software developer from the German city of Bremen when he learned of a new role at Native Instruments, developing their flagship ‘Reaktor’ soft synth. Becker scored the role, and when it quickly emerged in meetings that the company was hoping to develop software aimed at DJs, as well as modular enthusiasts, he boldly volunteered to lead the charge. Already a rave enthusiast, he had soom recruited a small group of developers working on similar projects to follow him on the journey. Soon he was heading to clubs and festivals carrying little more than a laptop loaded with a beta version of the software soon to be known as Traktor

“At Fusion festival, some drum & bass DJs adopted it and were brave enough to play on stage with it, with just a laptop and without even a controller at that time,” recalls Becker. “The initial feedback came from more experimental DJs, as well as the people associated with NI, such as Richard Devine and Amon TobinAphex Twin also tried it out. They all heavily influenced Traktor’s development; for example, the very advanced midi mapping that we had from day one was at their request.”

Despite the collaborative nature of NI’s work, as well as the passion directed towards their previous software successes, not every DJ and producer was immediately convinced.

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“There was a huge resistance,” Becker stresses. “The things most irritating to DJs were the sync button and losing the uniqueness of being able to beatmatch. That’s a debate still going on today! Another big point was the sound quality. DJs said the MP3 quality wasn’t good enough for them, that they needed vinyl and so there was no way to get them on a laptop.”

“Nonetheless, the laptop itself wasn’t looked at as critically as today,” he adds. “The laptop was, I think, associated with live music, so it was something special to see one on stage. People were raving about it. But Final Scratch was the final innovation, the point when the mood turned from criticism to total fascination…”

Almost in perfect unison with Traktor’s initial early-aughts development, techno superstar and persistent innovator Richie Hawtin had been working with the Dutch company N2IT to create hardware that connected digital DJing software to existing decks using special timecode records. When the second edition of the software debuted, Native Instruments was fully incorporated. And while the game changed for DJs, the backlash from some persisted.

“It’s no secret that the reaction to the launch of Final Scratch was met with considerable shock and horror,” says Dubfire. “But Richie was always on the cutting edge of technology and I knew that the digital format was bound to be the future. I think that most were quite aware of that fact despite the resistance to it initially. And the merits of both formats have been hotly debated ever since. There is a nostalgia and feeling with vinyl that will never get replaced, and I do miss that, of course. But I have always evolved with the times, and the technology has simply made DJ performance far more creative and expanded.”

Having worked on developing Traktor for two decades, Becker has always appreciated the unusual, outlying ways in which DJs have incorporated it’s functions to their own creative ends, or as he calls them. “little revolutions.” For example, he hadn’t anticipated a DJ such as Chris Liebing utilising the ‘loop’ function on all four available digital decks, creating sets and textures that were maximised to the current landscape of big room techno and equally, hypnotically evolved into minimal.

For a DJ driven as much by technology as music, Dubfire loves having the ability to conjure what he calls “sonic atmospheres… beefing up or altering a song by layering others underneath.” Still, the arrival of Beatport LINK on Traktor software represents a shift that mirrors what Becker calls the “democratisation of streaming.” In less technical terms, with LINK, every DJ has all the music, all the time.

Get connected with Beatport LINK and Traktor by going here.

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British-born, Berlin-based DJ/producer BEC is an up-and-coming talent who has enjoyed an ascent despite the international pandemic and touring pause. She offers a different and vital perspective on the near future of DJing for the streaming generation.

“Every single person can have access to these back catalogues without having a big budget or a huge record collection,” she observes. “So that’s going to help everyone who has ever wanted to become a DJ, which sometimes feels like everyone.”

“But I think at the top it will become even more niche,” BEC says. “There will be DJs continuing to search out music in the underground, just to be as different as possible. If everyone has access to Beatport LINK, and through Traktor as well, then you don’t want to just be playing the same sets as everyone else. Anybody can buy a decent camera and use it on automatic these days, but you need to be really skilled to work as one of the top photographers in the world. It’ll make it even more competitive, so everyone else around will have to hang on to their careers very tightly and keep up with the new technology.”

As an architect of Traktor, Becker observes these shifts with keen interest. After twenty years, he remains firmly optimistic that the software will continue to flourish in the hands and ears of a passionate music community.

“For sure, the technology has over time replaced one element over the other of ‘technical’ DJing”, admits Becker. “This has potentially led into a dampened enthusiasm about technical DJing in the audience and the idea that it’s the computer playing, rather than the DJ. Now the DJ has a new problem; they don’t have their special records anymore! But this idea will mature. Because it’s always been about being unique.”

As club culture is democratised, deconstructed and reinvented by new generations, innovation comes hand-in-hand with creativity and controversy. No matter how the digital DJing revolution continues, Beatport Link x Traktor taps into the past and future of electronic innovation, keeping music firmly in the centre.

TRAKTOR x Beatport LINK Livestream

In celebration of the TRAKTOR x Beatport LINK integration, we put together a live stream featuring a whole host of heavyweight talent. Check out the performances in below and enjoy sets from IVA, Joyhauser, ABSOLUTE., Joris Voorn, Steve Bug, BEC, Rebekah, Fabio Florido, DJ Krust, Joran van Pol, Sharam, Uffie, Ean Golden, and Madame Gandhi.

John Thorp is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. You can find more of his work here.

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